2022 was a good year for the far right in Europe.
Although Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s radical right, did not win the presidential election, she came a lot closer this time, while her party won a record number of seats in the parliamentary elections. In Sweden, the once marginal and marginalized Sweden Democrats became the biggest right-wing party and a crucial support party of the new right-wing coalition. In Italy, Giorgia Meloni became the first female prime minister of Italy and the first far-right prime minister in postwar Western Europe. And the arrest of more than two dozen people planning a coup in Germany is an important reminder that the far-right threat to democracy does not only come from political parties.
Why has the European far right been so successful? And how worried should we be about its threat to liberal democracy in Europe?
Ever since Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Weimar Germany in the 1930s, amid the Great Depression, it has been common to link political and economic crises to the rise of the far right. But the contemporary far right in Europe is neither a product of crises nor of the success of former President Donald Trump in the US.
In fact, far-right parties have been slowly but steadily increasing their electoral support and political power in Europe since the early 1980s. Over that time, they have moved from the political margins into the political mainstream. As a consequence, far-right parties currently constitute the biggest threat to liberal democracy in Europe.
Five European countries in particular (but not exclusively) deserve attention on this front. Going from the most to the least acute level of threat, the world should keep an eye on Hungary, Poland, Italy, Sweden, and France. In all these countries, far-right parties are electorally successful and politically powerful, though their ability to weaken liberal democracy varies.
If liberal democracy is to defend itself, it’s imperative that we examine why the far right has become so successful in the West. What right-wing appeals have worked on electorates? Which parties and personalities loom especially large in the coming years? And why is all this happening now?
Why has the far right been so successful recently?
Since the end of the Second World War, far-right parties have been contesting elections across Western Europe. But it wasn’t until this century that they began to move from the fringes to the mainstream.
The emergence of the European political far right in the postwar era can be thought of in four waves.
In the first wave, roughly 1945-55, these parties were neo-fascist and electorally insignificant — with the notable exception of the Italian Social Movement (MSI), the predecessor of Brothers of Italy (FdI), the party of Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.
The second wave of right-wing populism, 1955-80, consisted of a heterogeneous group of so-called “flash parties,” which scored relatively big electoral results out of nowhere and then disappeared into political oblivion one or two elections later. The best example is the Union and French Fraternity (UFF), which gained almost 13 percent of the vote and 52 seats in the 1956 French legislative election, only to again disappear as quickly as they had appeared.
It was only in the third wave, 1980-2000, that far-right parties started to break into national parliaments in various European countries, such as the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) and the misleadingly named Center Party (CP) in the Netherlands. These populist radical right parties shared a core ideology of nativism, authoritarianism, and populism. Although not strictly single-issue parties, they mostly profited from a growing political dissatisfaction that centered in particular on immigration.
That paved the way for the fourth wave at the beginning of the century, in which far-right parties moved from the political margins into the political mainstream and increased their electoral support, from an average of just 1 percent of the vote in EU member states in the 1980s to close to 10 percent in the 2010s. (It’s worth noting that the support of individual parties varies massively; recently, for example, from less than 1 percent for parties in Ireland to over 50 percent for Fidesz in Hungary — the latter achieved in free but unfair elections.)
Most of the relevant parties in this fourth wave are part of the same populist radical right subgroup, focusing primarily on issues like crime, corruption, and immigration. Unlike the extreme right, which consists of a broad variety of small, neo-fascist parties — parties that, in terms of ideology and symbols, hark back to the fascist movements of the early 20th century — the radical right supports democracy per se. That is, they support popular sovereignty and majority rule, while opposing key institutions and values of liberal democracy, such as an independent judiciary and media, minority rights, pluralism, and the separation of powers.
Decades of mainstreaming of radical right frames and policies have led to further radicalization of some these parties, which has blurred the boundaries between the radical and extreme right; for example, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) and the Forum for Democracy (FvD) in the Netherlands. Both parties combine nativist opposition to immigration and populist rejection of the establishment with more or less open historical revisionism — e.g., Alexander Gauland, the former AfD co-chair, said that “Hitler and the Nazis are just bird shit in more than 1,000 years of successful German history” — and thinly veiled support for political violence. One FvD MP threatened a mainstream politician with “tribunals” over Covid-19 policies.
Although far-right parties existed in many Western European countries in the decades after World War II, they only started to challenge the political mainstream in the 1980s. The economic and social upheavals of the 1960s had set in motion various structural processes, such as deindustrialization and secularization, that not just changed the electorate but also eroded longstanding ties between voter groups and political parties.
This dealignment, as well as changing priorities and values, created opportunities for parties that focused more on socio-cultural (or so-called “identity”) than socio-economic issues. As the main traditional parties had converged on socio-economic policies and took relatively moderate or weak positions on socio-cultural issues, far-right parties saw an opportunity. Their main issues were all related to opposition to integration: of countries (European integration), of markets (neoliberalism), and of people (multiculturalism).
In the wake of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, far-right parties grew not only in electoral support but also in political relevance. On many socio-cultural issues, the far right constitutes the main electoral and ideological challenge to the status quo, which has been severely weakened by the unprecedented string of crises in the still-young century — the terrorism attacks of 9/11, the Great Recession, the refugee crisis of the mid-2010s, the Covid-19 pandemic, and now the Russian re-invasion of Ukraine.
In other words, what we’ve seen these last few years is the cresting of a wave that’s been building for decades.
Five countries to watch
The right-wing incursion into the European political mainstream isn’t a uniform phenomenon across the continent. Some countries have withstood the emergence of far-right parties; others have been engulfed. But five countries provide a particular insight into the far-right threat to liberal democracy on the wider continent.
Fidesz leader Viktor Orbán was initially among the most unlikely East European politicians to become a threat to liberal democracy. After all, Fidesz was founded as a libertarian, pro-Western party in 1988, and Orbán was a darling of the Western political establishment in the early 1990s.
Today, he is the hero of the European and US far right alike, hailed as the protector of Christianity, European culture, and the traditional family. Orbán’s story is in many ways a microcosm of a two-way dynamic — the radicalization of the mainstream right, as well as the mainstreaming of the far right — that is threatening many European countries today.
After disappointing elections in 1990 and 1994, Orbán transformed Fidesz into a conservative party, winning the 1998 elections. Although his first coalition government was not especially alarming, his authoritarianism and nationalism were already on display in those early years. His response to his loss of power in 2002, when he declared that “the nation cannot be in opposition,” and his support for violent anti-government protests in 2006, should have been clear red flags, but were mostly ignored.
Fidesz used the time in opposition to build so-called “civic circles” and non-government organizations (including media outlets), which functioned as a state within the state. After coming back to power in 2010, Orbán used this infrastructure, and the party’s constitutional majority, to quickly implement a well-designed transformation of the political system, including a new constitution, a replacement of most key state personnel, and myriad new, Fidesz-controlled, semi-state institutions, which now control and own almost all Hungarian media outlets and many universities.
Fidesz had returned to power with a fairly vague pro-change message and initially implemented a relatively mainstream, if openly nationalist, conservative agenda. Although the government claimed to support a free market, it used state funds to buy up foreign-owned companies and industries and build a “national capitalist class,” which is deeply loyal to Fidesz and Orbán. At the same time, the government passed socially conservative policies in ostensible defense of the nationalist trifecta of church, family, and nation.
During the refugee crisis of 2015-16, Orbán shifted to a more aggressive and openly nativist agenda. Not only did his government build a high-tech border fence to keep immigrants — especially Muslim immigrants — out of the country, it also introduced a variety of socio-economic “pro-family” policies, like tax breaks for families, in a bid to reverse Hungary’s notoriously low birth rates and prevent the country from becoming dependent upon non-European immigrants.
Although Hungary is no longer a liberal democracy — in September, the European Parliament declared the country an “electoral autocracy” — and elections are free but unfair, Orbán and Fidesz are popular. In particular, his anti-immigration and “pro-family” policies have broad support, as do government investments in rural areas. However, he is also helped by a hopelessly divided opposition and complete control of the media, which provide a distorted view of the international and national opposition, while staying quiet on the massive corruption of the Orbàn regime.
The story of Poland is similar to that of Hungary, but less pronounced — so far. The current ruling party, Law and Justice (PiS), has its roots in anti-communist opposition and moved from the center to the far right over two decades.
Its first coalition government (2005-07) did raise some alarms, although mostly because of its coalition partners, the agrarian populist Samoobrona and, particularly, the radical right League of Polish Families (LPR). Both parties were openly nationalist and populist, and even faced accusations of antisemitism.
When PiS returned to power in 2015, it promised to implement “the Budapest model” in Warsaw, a nod to Orban’s platform.
Like Fidesz in Hungary, PiS has turned the state media into an instrument for party propaganda and attacked the independent judiciary. It has also combined a socio-economic agenda that includes generous subsidies for larger families and rural communities, but it has not (yet) tried to create a Fidesz-style “national capitalist class.” Culturally, PiS staunchly defends the so-called “traditional family” and opposes LGBTQ rights, often in close collaboration with the Catholic Church.
In terms of foreign policy, the differences between the two parties are much bigger. PiS is more fundamentally Euroskeptic, because of a deep-seated anti-German attitude, and is more staunchly pro-US and anti-Russian. And PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński is almost the opposite of Viktor Orbán, being more a behind-the-scenes power broker and showing little interest in becoming a major European player.
Partly because PiS is the leading party of the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), the Euroskeptic group founded by the British Conservative Party, its crude attacks on liberal democracy have faced significantly more backlash from the EU. The party also faces much stronger opposition from both civil society and political parties in Poland, at least compared to Fidesz in Hungary. This became particularly visible in 2020, when the government further tightened its abortion ban, already the second strictest in the EU (after Malta), and over 100,000 Polish women flooded the streets of Warsaw in protest.
Polish liberal democracy has been weakened by seven years of PiS rule, but recent events suggest it is still alive and kicking back.
Italy has had consistent far-right parliamentary representation in the postwar era, but it was Silvio Berlusconi — prime minister in 1994, 2001-06, and 2008-11 — who moved the far right out of the margins, creating a center-right bloc with the post-fascists of the National Alliance (AN) and the regional populists of the Northern League (LN) in 1994.
For 20 years, his Forza Italia (FI) dominated that bloc, a coalition that was defined more by Berlusconi’s personal interests, as well as a vocal critique of the left (including the “red robes,” judges overseeing various corruption cases against the prime minister), than by any specific ideological or policy platform. But in 2018 Matteo Salvini’s radicalized Lega became the biggest right-wing party — only to lose that position to Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy (FdI) in 2022.
Meloni is both the first female prime minister of Italy and the first far-right prime minister of a Western European country in the postwar era. But her power base is much weaker than her allies in Hungary and Poland. There are more profound ideological differences within Italy’s coalition. For instance, while the League originated as a regionalist party for the North, at times even calling for independence from Italy, FdI supports a strongly unitary Italian state. And where FdI and the League are both strongly Euroskeptic, Berlusconi has presented himself more recently as one of the strongest EU supporters within the country.
Competing egos and mutual distrust threaten the coalition even more. Neither Berlusconi nor Salvini will accept a secondary role, let alone to a woman, and will not support a power grab by Meloni. For instance, during the coalition negotiations Berlusconi accused Meloni of being “bossy” (a highly gendered accusation), while Meloni has accused Salvini of being “more polemical” with her than with his opponents.
Italy’s judiciary also has a long history of fighting political interference from the right, most notably Berlusconi. So, while the Italian far right is in power and worth keeping an eye on, it is doubtful it can do similar damage to the institutions and values of liberal democracy as its ideological brethren to the East.
For a long time, its neo-Nazi origins and low electoral support made it easy for Sweden’s traditional parties to both exclude and ignore the Sweden Democrats (SD).
This started to change after 2014, when the party gained the third most seats in parliamentary elections. Four years later, the SD had become so strong that neither the center-left nor the center-right bloc could form a coalition government by itself, creating a political impasse, and a combination of weak governments. Since then, favorite SD issues like crime and immigration, combined in the far-right frame of “immigrant crime,” have become even more mainstreamed, and the traditional right has opened the door to official collaboration.
In October, a right-wing minority government was formed, which depends formally on the parliamentary support of the SD, whose influence can be seen in the lengthy coalition agreement. However, all power still rests in the hands of formally liberal democratic politicians, even if these politicians have radicalized sharply to the right in recent years. Consequently, the far-right threat comes primarily from traditional right-wing parties, for the moment.
Still, it is doubtful that Sweden’s right-wing parties, both traditional and radical, will go much beyond more authoritarian and nativist politics, as all seem invested and supportive of the political system.
The National Front (FN) is the prototype of the modern populist radical right party.
For decades, the party, and its charismatic leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, dominated the European far right. As far as there was regional collaboration between far-right parties, it was under the initiative and leadership of Le Pen.
The FN had little to no parliamentary representation, but its political influence was obvious: already in the 1990s, French politicians of all traditional parties copied its issues, frames, and positions on immigration. From the left to the right, parties started to oppose what they called “mass immigration” and framed migrants (particularly Muslim) as a threat to the French nation. Echoing long-standing FN propaganda, right-wing president Nikolas Sarkozy even declared multiculturalism in France a “failure” in 2011.
This drift has continued under Marine Le Pen, who replaced her father in 2011, and renamed the party as National Rally (RN) in 2018. Although remaining loyal to the party’s ideological core, she launched a successful “de-demonization” campaign, which helped to further mainstream and normalize her ideas and party.
Even President Emmanuel Macron, elected after an anti-Le Pen campaign in 2017, has since adopted important parts of her propaganda, including in his campaign against Islamo-gauchisme or Islamo-leftism, a moniker given to the conspiracy theory that French Islamists and radical leftists work together to undermine the institutions and values of the republic. So, although Le Pen and the RN are still excluded from governing by a cordon sanitaire, and can therefore not directly challenge or change the main institutions of French liberal democracy, they have been able to partly redefine what “liberty, equality, fraternity,” as well as laicité (separation of state and church), mean in France.
How worried should we be?
The electoral far right constitutes a significant threat to liberal democracy in Europe, but the threat varies significantly across the continent. No doubt, the biggest threat comes when one far-right party holds a constitutional majority, as in Hungary, where democracy has been, for all intents and purposes, destroyed.
When the far right lacks a constitutional majority, it can still do a lot of damage, but faces larger legal and political hurdles, as in Poland. When it is in government, but internally divided, as in Italy, mutual distrust will likely prevent most ostensive damage, but ideology and intimidation can still cause less visible harms.
In most European countries, however, the main impact is indirect, through the co-optation of the far-right agenda or the collaboration with far-right parties — by, mostly but not exclusively, mainstream right-wing parties — as is happening in France and Sweden, for example. What makes this process particularly problematic is that it is often not perceived as far-right or threatening; within the political establishment, many might deny or minimize cries of authoritarianism or nativism among insiders.
While it is important to not exaggerate the threat — doing so only increases its power — we should recognize that most far-right parties have only relatively recently become part of the mainstream political process. They often lack the experience and skills to fundamentally change the system and many fail in their first attempt in power. But they learn from previous mistakes, and decades of mainstreaming and normalization helps them gain more experienced and skilled people.
Similarly, far-right parties are collaborating more actively and effectively cross-nationally and cross-regionally (including with the US), learning from each other, protecting each other, and increasing their capacity to govern.
In other words, the far-right threat to European liberal democracy is real, but there is also still time to fight off the worst consequences — outside of Hungary, that is.
Cas Mudde is the Stanley Wade Shelton UGAF professor of international affairs and a distinguished research professor at the University of Georgia, as well as a professor at the Center for Research on Extremism (C-REX) of the University of Oslo.